You’re a what?” he asked over the noise of the passing Mardi Gras parade.
“I’m a hospitalist,” I replied.
“Oh.” There was an extended pause. I could tell he was searching his mental database to determine if he had a family member who was a hospitalist. Nope, nothing there. Then it came: “What is that exactly?” I followed with a general description of “what a hospitalist does,” but his response made it apparent that my description hadn’t stuck: “So you’re like a generalist, but you work in the hospital?”
I let it go. Mardi Gras wasn’t the time to launch into all that a hospitalist truly embodies: quality improvement, systems redesign, patient safety, effective transitions of care. And he probably wouldn’t remember it tomorrow anyway. But my reveler friend’s summary statement stayed with me through the night, for it returned me to a core philosophical tenet: Esse est percipi. We are who we appear to be.
There are 30,000 of us now, all facing the same problem: How do we match who we are perceived to be with who we are? The hospitalist is much more than a “generalist who works in a hospital,” but what is perceived to be is equally as important as what is. At the root of the problem is a question of accountability: How do we hold ourselves out to the public as a specialty that possesses the knowledge and skills necessary to advance quality and safety for the hospitalized patient?
This question of public accountability is not new to the profession. The heterogeneity of physicians in the early 1900s, from the authentic to the snake-oil salesmen, prompted the need for independent validation of physicians’ qualifications. Dr. Derrick Vail introduced the concept of a board certification in 1908, with the goal of “issuing credentials that would assure the public of the specialist’s qualifications.” The American Board of Medical Specialties was formed in 1933, and continues to this day to be the entity responsible for ensuring this accountability.
While there are no “snake-oil salesmen” in HM, there is heterogeneity. There are many of us answering the call to advance quality and patient safety, but there are many more of us who are not yet there. And there are some (i.e., those practicing medicine in the hospital while awaiting a subspecialty fellowship) who, while referred to as “hospitalists,” do not embrace the central tenets of the career hospitalist. Thirty-thousand hospitalists is a spectacular achievement, but with that growth comes the new problem of dilution: Without some measure of distinguishing those who are authentic in the value-added services of quality and patient safety from those who have not embraced these tenets, the perception of us all will be merely “physicians who practice in the hospital.”
To my mind, the American Board of Internal Medicine’s (ABIM) Maintenance of Certification (MOC) Focused Practice in Hospital Medicine (FPHM) program answers this question of public accountability. This new MOC process provides an objective way of establishing that hospitalists who claim to be competent in their field have, in fact, demonstrated this competence. Paradoxically, it is even more compelling than a board certification following a residency or fellowship; skills and knowledge fade over time, and new knowledge consistently is added. The MOC certification assures the public that despite these challenges, the certified hospitalist has continued to maintain competence in the field.
Further, the components of the FPHM (www.abim.org/specialty/fphm.aspx) provide assurance that the certified hospitalist has the expertise to practice HM, and has the knowledge and skills necessary to offer the value-added services of quality, patient safety, and performance improvement.
Why Is It Important to Recertify?
Registration for the MOC in FPHM opened March 15, and more than 100 hospitalists enrolled in the program in the first two weeks. While exciting, this number is not enough; here I share with you my reflections on why this MOC is so important to our field.
As with all things SHM, the rationale begins with, “What is the best thing for the patient?” I completed my first recertification in 2008, and I can honestly say that this was the first “test” in my career that actually made me a better physician for my patients. I was skeptical at first, seeing the MOC as another bureaucratic hurdle for which I would have the opportunity to pay $1,000. But the reality was that it was much more than that; it made me a better physician. It alerted me to blind spots in my clinical repertoire: some topics I had never learned, some I had forgotten, and some that were new knowledge.
Preparing for the examination isn’t onerous, perhaps a couple extra hours a week of reading. Since the examination focused on the practical aspects of diagnosis and management, and not the basic- science minutiae that had characterized the earlier examinations in my career, I found that the preparation for the MOC exam improved my practice of medicine. The only downside was that I did not have the luxury of an HM-focused exam in 2008, and there were content areas on the standard internal medicine (IM) MOC that were not a part of my inpatient practice.
But it was the Practice Improvement Module (PIM) component of the MOC process, a shared feature of both the FPHM and the IM MOC processes, that most benefited my patients. As a hospitalist, this too was not onerous, as practice improvement is what I do on a daily basis. Moreover, it was the external discipline of completing the PIM that made it truly valuable: collecting data, reflecting on methods of improvement, enacting an intervention, and then reassessing the results. The process forced me to reflect on my practice, and it heightened my sensitivity to other parts of my practice, and the hospital system, that needed to be improved.
Further benefit came through collaboration with other physicians in my group, as encouraged by the ABIM, to complete the PIM. This teamwork fostered a heightened spirit of QI within our team, further augmenting quality of care and sensitivity to needed systems improvements. True, at the end of the process, I was $1,000 lighter … but my conscience was richer. I had improved as a physician, and I think it has translated into a benefit for my patients.
What Recertification Means to HM
Although the virtue of improving patient care is sufficient to justify participation in the MOC in FPHM, the passage of healthcare reform legislation raises the stakes for hospitalists. The Physician Quality Reporting Initiative (PQRI) is an ongoing reality, further voicing the public’s need for accountability.
The final impact will hinge on the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) interpretation and execution of the language in the final bill, but it is clear that physicians who participate in the PQRI (through claims-based or registry reporting) have the opportunity to receive an additional 0.5% bonus on their total allowable Medicare charges in 2011 through 2014, if they also meet MOC program requirements. (The health reform bill provides a 1.0% bonus in 2011 for PQRI participation and a 0.5% bonus through 2014.)
Subsequently, physicians who do not participate in the PQRI will face a 1.5% payment penalty in 2015, and a 2% payment penalty in 2016 and thereafter. With these incentives, it appears the day-to-day finances of practice will offset the cost of MOC participation.
The importance of FPHM extends to the remainder of the PQRI as well. Currently, HM is not recognized by CMS as its own specialty, which means that it does not have its own CMS specialty code. In turn, this means that the core measures CMS will apply to the hospitalist in fulfilling the PQRI standards will be those of the general internist, and these might or might not apply to HM practice. For those to whom the standards do not apply, PQRI becomes a practical impossibility, though the financial penalty remains an unfortunate reality.
The extent to which the core measures for general medicine do not apply to the inpatient environment is the extent to which PQRI will be less effective in incentivizing the advancement of inpatient healthcare quality. This is an opportunity missed. Preventing this systematic exclusion begins with recognizing HM as a specialty. In convincing CMS that HM is its own specialty, deserving of its own code and its own PQRI indices, I can think of no argument as compelling as pointing to 10,000 hospitalists certified in the MOC in FPHM program.
Financial incentives aside, the ultimate success of HM will be in our ability to change the healthcare system such that it provides safe, timely, equitable, efficient, and patient-centered care. We’ve spent more than 10 years trying to get into the conversation, and now we have a seat at the table. But to be effective in this audacious goal, we must speak with a stentorian voice—a timbre that comes only from the chords of the sincere. Society must know of our sincerity—not by our words, but by our actions.
As president of SHM, I am calling on you to join me in meeting this standard of public accountability. Let us prove to the world that our talk of quality and patient safety is much more than talk. Let us establish that we are willing to engage in the ongoing self-improvement necessary to reach this wished-for goal.
Esse est percipi. We are as we are perceived. Now is our time to make one with the other—fulfilling a covenant that promises that we will, eventually, close this quality chasm. TH
Dr. Wiese is president of SHM.